Richard Newton: Part 1 of an interview by Bob Morris

Posted on: April 29th, 2015 by bobmorris

Newton, Richard

In his own words….

I’m an entrepreneur who writes.

I’ve written three books.

The End of Nice: How to be human in a world run by robots: This is a manifesto for human creativity in the age of machines, big data and automation.

I wrote Stop Talking, Start Doing: A Kick in the Pants in Six Parts with my co-author Shaa Wasmund: This was a best-selling business book in the UK and has been published in 15 languages.

And I’ve written The Little Book of Thinking Big: Aim Higher and Go Further Than You Ever Thought Possible, published by Capstone/A Wiley Brand. It hit the Sunday Times #1 spot for business bestsellers.

For almost ten years I wrote about business for The Sunday Telegraph, The Mail on Sunday and others. Then I switched sides to walk the talk and run my own business.

A few years ago I co-founded a company called OP3Nvoice (now called Clarify.io) which was described by Giga-Om as the emerging Google of video and audio. We moved the HQ to Austin, Texas, after going through the Techstars program in London.

Before that I co-founded Screendragon, a software company that supplies brand management and project management systems for many of the world’s largest consumer brands and ad agencies. It was hell and it was exciting. Sometimes simultaneously.

In 2014 I shifted back to writing. I write on technology companies, start up culture, and innovation for The Financial Times, Guardian, British Airways Business Life, and Virgin Entrepreneur blogs, my own blogs and elsewhere.

* * *

Morris: Before discussing The Little Book of Thinking Big, a few general questions. First, who has had the greatest influence on your personal growth? How so?

Newton: Too many to mention but here’s one. I made friends with a guy called Jonathan Marks in Indonesia in 1987 when I was travelling. A year later I was meandering my way back from the Southern hemisphere to the UK and ended up in San Francisco and I looked him up. He was the first person I knew with a Macintosh computer and he was using it run a business trading in live recordings of the Grateful Dead, Tie Die Grateful Dead T-shirts, key rings and other fan stuff. He was doing all this from his home on the corner of Haight and Ashbury.

Nearly thirty years later this still seems like a cool and high tech way to live and to blend passion, technology and work. I stayed with him and his girlfriend for a bit and then, when I caught the Greyhound bus to New York he gave me a copy of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S Thompson and On The Road by Jack Kerouac…Which I read “on the road.” Kind of. I think all this lit a slow burning fuse to be a tech entrepreneur and become a writer.

Morris: The greatest impact on your professional development? How so?

Newton: No single person but I would say it is all the “chancers” I have met in life. You see, for me, playing by the rules and trying to proceed incrementally in my career and travelling only step by measured step is easy to do. It’s what I would call “nice” behaviour – fitting in and conforming, minimising risk and playing by the rules. But along the way I have been fortunate enough to keep meeting friends and acquaintances who are less ponderous than me. They just get on with things and while many of them have failed many times they have swung the bat a lot and that’s always an inspiration to leap out of the comfort zone.

Morris: Years ago, was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) that set you on the career course you continue to follow? Please explain.

Newton: One of these friends I referred to above had persuaded Coca-Cola that he could make a TV commercial for them. He had never made a TV commercial so this was pure hustle. I was a journalist at the time and we collaborated to write some ideas. The ideas which we thought were the worst, the client thought were the best (valuable learning!) and then we were given a budget and had to make a TV commercial. Unlike my friend who had some video production experience I had none. But I took some time off work and we worked out how to make a TV ad and begged and borrowed favours (actors, music, crews, camera, studios, make up, costumes etc) and hustled and got the ad out on time, on budget and it spent a long time on terrestrial TV. Through that I realised you could hustle anything and learn on the job and get help in the areas where you most needed it.

Morris: To what extent has your formal education been invaluable to what you have accomplished in life thus far?

Newton: Pfffff. If you imagine your formal education was, say, a river, then the valuable part for me was all the stuff along the riverbank rater than the river itself. This is of my own doing, though. As a student I chose the wrong subjects. I insisted on studying subjects that were not of intrinsic and passionate interest to me but which were subjects that I felt were serious, worthy and sensible.

In England, when I was a schoolboy, we typically chose three or four subjects to study for A-levels which are the exams you studied for at age 16-18 prior to university. I chose math, physics and economics.

Then at university I studied economics which I eventually shifted toward political science.

Now, today, as I am finally beginning to know myself I realise I was naturally an arts student. I should have studied literature, history, art. Thus would have gone with the grain of my soul! Instead I chose to walk the harder path.

Choosing this perverse hard course has not served me all that well and it’s a bad habit that I’m trying to correct.

To go back to the river metaphor, or to explain it a bit better, I made great friends along the way and, in the process of studying political philosophy I realised that I could get a degree provided I could construct a good argument or tell a good tale and I was better at that than anything else. So you see, all the signs were there – I should have been a storyteller from the start!

Morris: What do you know now about the business world that you wish you knew when you went to work full-time for the first time? Why?

Newton: Actually, quite a bit:

1. Don’t take it so seriously
2. Ask your boss for more money and stand your ground
3. Don’t do everyone else’s job for them
4. Just because people are being polite and smiling it doesn’t mean they aren’t shafting you
5. Stop for lunch
6. When you have finished for the day LEAVE and don’t let the inertia of the desk (or other tool of work) keep you pinned in the office longer than you need to be there.
7. That some people have business intelligence and others have creative intelligence or emotional intelligence or some other form of intelligence. Someone can be brilliant at business but give no outward sign of it by being very average at other things. And vice versa. So reserve judgment.

Morris: Here are several of my favorite quotations to which I ask you to respond. First, from Howard Aiken: “Don’t worry about people stealing your ideas. If your ideas are any good, you’ll have to ram them down people’s throats.”

Newton: It’s generally true and a good observation. But coming from the startup space the reason that people often tell you they’re scared of telling you their idea is that it’s so good (in their mind) that it will be stolen and their business potential whipped away from under their feet. But in the startup business it’s about execution. And hardly any business ends up being the original idea. Maybe a distant cousin.

Morris: From Richard Dawkins: “Yesterday’s dangerous idea is today’s orthodoxy and tomorrow’s cliché.”

Newton: I recently attended a talk by Eric Ries, the author of The Lean Start Up, and he said that he has started receiving emails and complaints from readers who are outraged that he is claiming credit for the ideas in his book. The ideas, such as test your minimum viable product in the market place as fast as possible in order to see what works and what doesn’t, that sort of thing, are now so popular that he is being beaten up for claiming they were an idea rater than generally held common sense. Well, this is amazing validation and shows that his ideas have come a long way. When he first started out he used to explain his ideas of rapid prototyping and so on in his blog and he would be invited to speak to big corporations and several times they found his ideas so outrageous that he was literally thrown out of the building.

Morris: From Isaac Asimov: “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds the most discoveries, is not “Eureka!” (I found it!) but ‘That’s odd….’”

Newton: The trick is to notice that little ripple in your consciousness that something odd just happened or appeared. Noticing becomes ever harder to do because we have become a head-down, screen-focused species. Before you can say “that’s odd,” you need to give yourself space to register the world as it goes by.

I wrote a piece in the FT about a wonderful company called Technology Will Save Us which teaches kids to play with the guts of technology rather than skate over its touch screen surface. The genesis of their business was a conversation that the two founders, a husband and wife, had when they noticed that someone had thrown a perfectly good but slightly old laptop into a garbage skip at the end of their road.

Morris: From Thomas Edison: “Vision without execution is hallucination.”

Newton: This is the sine qua non of startup culture. It’s all about execution. Startup culture – which has been captured brilliantly and led by Eric Ries’s book, The Lean StartUp – is all about getting your IDEA into the hands of your CUSTOMER as soon as possible. Until you do that you may just be hallucinating.

The speed of execution leads people to make mistakes and people don’t want to do that because they have educated to be NICE (gradual, predictable, mistake-free, safe, routinised and manual-following).

To encourage people to break free of their conditioning and become ANTI-NICE and execute faster with more fearlessness the pendulum (in the startup/ tech scene) has shifted the other way and failure has been almost glorified.

Facebook and an engineer for mottos which was “Move Fast and Break Things”. This has been ameliorated since 2014 to something more along the lines of “Move Fast and Maintain Stability.”

Nevertheless it’s all about execution and getting the ideas and creativity out of your head into the hands or minds of your customers, friends, audience.

But I’d like to say a positive word about “hallucinations”. These can be nice. And I think a lot of people are very happy dreaming about alternative lives, courses of action, imagining they are Richard Branson and owned a Caribbean Island and an airline and a space shuttle service. These dreams are pleasant to indulge so long as you don’t start berating yourself for not having the wealth, success of those whom fortune has showered with gifts.

Morris: Finally, from Peter Drucker: “There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.”

Newton: …and perhaps nothing so easy to do. We have been trained and conditioned to associate being busy working with being good. Industriousness is the measure of a person’s character or so we are led to believe. Idleness is also a sign of your character but it’s at the other end of the scale. I think increasingly we will begin to recognise this is nonsense. Work for the sake of work may not be all it’s cracked it up to be.

But while it is the easiest thing in the world to carry on doing what you were doing yesterday and maybe to do so efficiently,  to stop and question whether this is the best thing you can be doing with your time is much harder to do.

Morris: The greatest leaders throughout history (with rare exception) were great storytellers. What do you make of that?

Newton: In the great Venn diagram of life there is a significant overlap in the attributes of a good leadership and good storytelling. In both roles it helps to understand how people work, what drives us and scares us. And stories help us identify our role in the journeys of countries, armies, companies, sports teams and so on. But a great storyteller may only want to tell stories not do things. Whereas a great leader is usually the protagonist of a real story. To be great at one thing will not make you great at the other.

Morris: Looking ahead (let’s say) 3-5 years, what do you think will be the greatest challenge that CEOs will face? Any advice?

Newton: Automation is going to change everything radically and the big challenge will be finding people who are prepared to work in a different, non-routinised way. Think about it like this – If the output of your job is defined by the job title rather than by you uniquely then you re doing a routinised job that is prescribed by a manual. Whether it’s high or low skill you could be replaced by another human of equivalent talent tomorrow and there would be no interruption to business as normal. If this is the case then you will be replaced by a robot or an algorithm very fast.

At the business level this means that the humans they need to drive their business forward will be people who are prepared to work in the non-routinised way – in other words a way which is exploratory, creative, and unfettered. But most people have been taught that this is NOT how to get on. So finding these people will be a huge challenge.

This creates challenges at the societal level and the individual level but at the company leadership level it will be about finding the people who are capable of working in a world of permanent acceleration.

* * *

Rich cordially invites you to check out the resources at these websites:

His website link

Wait But Why link

Brain Pickings link

xkcd link

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